Concern over deadly MERS in Kenya

Nairobi, Kenya: There is growing concern about the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, after two Kenyans were confirmed to have contracted the killer disease

A 26-year old woman and a 58-year old man in Tana River County were found to have antibodies against the virus causing the disease, indicating that they were infected in the recent past. Antibodies usually develop only after the body is infected with a virus.

It is the first time evidence of MERS virus has been found in Africa. All previous cases were restricted to Saudi Arabia

However, neither of the infected Kenyans is ill or recalls having any symptoms associated with MERS, meaning that their bodies were able to overcome the virus infection.

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The discovery was made by scientists from the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Ministry of Health and the University of Bonn Medical Centre. It is published in the scientific journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

This development has sparked calls for enhanced surveillance of MERS in Kenya since the disease has killed about 600 people globally It causes severe respiratory illness leading to death.

Scientists are now racing to probe how the two Kenyans may have been infected and whether there could be other cases in the country that are yet to be discovered.

Dr Anne Liljander, a scientist at the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute, who was part of the study said camels could have spread the virus.

“Dromedary camels widely carry the virus and human infections have been directly linked to contact with camels. Camels in Africa and elsewhere carry the MERS virus,” she wrote in the research study.

She added: “Neither of the two individuals affected cases owned camels. Nevertheless, camels roam in Tana River, and humans have regular contact with them.”

Dr Liljander indicated that the likelihood of the infection having come from wild animals or other livestock animals such as goats and sheep has also not been excluded.

While commenting on the published research, Dr Ahmed Kalebi, Honorary Lecturer at the University of Nairobi and a consultant pathologist, said there is no reason to believe that there is a public health threat from MERS virus in Kenya just yet.

Dr Kalebi, who is also the CEO of Lancet Group of laboratories that has the capacity to test for MERS virus in humans, said that while he wasn't involved in the research study, blood samples of the two infected cases were collected in 2013 and 2014 but only tested recently.

"Out of the 1122 samples from livestock handlers that were tested for the virus, only two showed evidence of having been infected in the past. It does not mean that the two cases have the MERS virus now and can infect others. Furthermore, the level of their antibodies as reported suggests they were probably infected a long time prior to the samples being collected," he said.

He added: 'The researchers in the study have said that there is no evidence of a MERS outbreak in Kenya nor is there an immediate risk of the virus in the country. But surveillance should be enhanced."

The researchers suggested that virus strain in Kenya may be less virulent than those in Middle East, causing people to develop only mild or no symptoms even after being infected.

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killer diseaseMiddle East Respiratory SyndromeMERS